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How bacteria adapt to hostile environments

USC Viterbi researchers use computer-based models to identify the ways that spores evade attack from chemicals and radiation

Bacteria illustration
Researchers used complex mathematical techniques to examine spores at the molecular level. (Image/iStock)

Bacteria, transformed into dormant spores, can survive millions of years in extreme environments, threatening human life in the form of food poisoning and the biological weapon anthrax. But understanding how bacteria adapt to hostile environments has largely remained a mystery — until now.

simulation of water molecules in Dipicolinic acid

The researchers ran hundreds of thousands of simulations to trace the trajectory of the water molecules (yellow) in a crystal of dipicolinic acid (teal), a chemical compound inside the spore that contains the bacterial DNA machinery. (Animation/Aiichiro Nakano)

In a new study, USC Viterbi School of Engineering professors Priya VashishtaRajiv K. Kalia and Aiichiro Nakano used computer-based models to identify mechanisms or “strategies” used by bacterial spores to evade attack from extreme temperatures, chemicals and radiation.

Using complex mathematical techniques to examine spores at the molecular level, the team also determined the optimal conditions for killing harmful bacteria.

Vashishta, Kalia and Nakano have joint appointments with USC Viterbi’s Department of Computer Science, the Mork Family Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, and the Department of Physics and Astronomy at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences.

The coating acts as an armor protecting the spore. In this “freeze-dried,” almost lifeless state, the spores wait for the right conditions to bloom into harmful bacteria.

Imagine bacterial spores are like a seed with a hard coating that preserves the DNA machinery.

Priya Vashishta

“Imagine bacterial spores are like a seed with a hard coating that preserves the DNA machinery,” said Vashishta, the director of USC’s Collaboratory for Advanced Computing and Simulations.

Earlier studies have shown that wet heat sterilization can destroy disease-causing bacteria, but the mechanisms whereby spores are killed by this treatment had not been fully revealed.

As such, optimizing the technique and assuring the destruction of bacterial spores with any degree of certainty has been a challenge for public health authorities and defense agencies.

Breaking down bacterial defenses

Using X-ray crystallography data, the researchers first determined the key elements of a single bacterium — water, acid and a calcium ion. Then they used a supercomputer to run hundreds of thousands of simulations, controlling the percentage of acid, water and calcium, and watched what happened.

The simulations revealed that depending on water concentration and temperature, the water inside the bacterial cell behaves like either solid, gel or liquid.

“Our models showed the spores perform a kind of chemical magic trick to intentionally freeze themselves and immobilize the water in their cells,” said Nakano, who also holds an appointment with the Department of Biological Sciences at USC Dornsife.

“The frozen cells cannot be disturbed by any radiation or chemical process, and it also protects the DNA so the spores can continue to reproduce.”

According to the researchers’ models, a combination of heat and moisture “defrosts” the water inside the cell, returning it to a liquid form. Without this protective barrier, the spore is more easily destroyed.

The computer models also allowed the researchers to determine the exact temperature and water balance needed to destroy the bacteria: between 90 to 95 degrees Celcius with a water concentration above 30 percent.

These insights could be used to prevent microbial contamination on food processing equipment and limit the spread of disease in the event of a biological attack. And because the process relies on moist-heat rather than chemical processes, the bacteria shouldn’t be able to develop resistance.

The study appeared in Applied Physics Letters. The research was supported by the Defense Threat Reduction Agency.

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How bacteria adapt to hostile environments

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